Ten years and seven games on, it’s surprising to see that Creative Assembly still have the skill and talent to surpass expectations on the Total War series. The well worn strategic formula of this grand saga are so recognised that surely now, on the eight outing, we’ve done everything worth doing? What’s left now? Initially, Shogun 2 may come across as little more than a re-hash – or a re-imagining – of the game that started the ball rolling.
Nothing has changed drastically to how it plays. There’s still a huge turn based campaign map in which to move armies across and seek diplomatic relations with neighbours. Battles are still done in real time and look glorious, and the whole package is jammed with enough historical details that anyone playing will end up coming out an expert on 16th century Japanese culture. It’s still the same game then, more or less, but what CA have added and improved has refined the experience to such an extent that Shogun 2 really does feel like the pinnacle of the series.
It’s also a welcome return to the land in which it was born. As enjoyable as it has been conquering the known world as the Roman Empire, or launching crusades into the Holy lands, or even exploiting the untapped potential of the new world, there’s something unique about feudal era Japan. Possibly owing something to the use of Samurai warriors and Ninjas to further your territorial expanse. Shogun 2 puts you in charge as a warlord of one of nine clans, each breaking off from Japan’s ruler to work independently. The goal throughout remains the conquest of Kyoto and installing yourself as the new Shogun master, a task that familiar Total War players will know from experience, is much easier said than done.
What’s immediately noticeable here, is that Empire: Total War’sglobe trekking antics have been scaled back considerably. Japan alone remains the one focal point of the game. Acquisition of sea trade routes still play a key role but to a much lesser extent. Even the clans and the soldiers they can recruit have been dialled back, with each only really distinguishable by their brightly coloured uniforms and military and civic bonuses. You might accuse Shogun 2 of simplification, but the result is anything but. CA have made it easier to work towards the end goal without numerous other constraint constantly playing on your mind and bogging you down in needless management. It’s welcome too, as the AI rarely ever makes it easy.
It’s the one aspect of Total War games that has always disappointed, having an enemy who can never quite seem to muster much enthusiasm in offering any sort of challenge. Yet not even three years into Shogun 2’s campaign, I was already declared war on by a clan who saw me as a weakling ripe for conquest. Marching his armies into my lands with a force far exceeding my own, those initial few turns where quite tense as battles, when fought, and even victories left my armies depleted of half their numbers.
It seems that this time deceit and deception are no longer the tools exclusive to the human player. Throughout, the AI tests and prods, never letting up once you’ve made them your enemy and using the exact same dirty tricks you use to undermine them, tricks that Total War’sAI has always seemed reluctant to use. It adds a certain unpredictability to the game which marks those clicking of the ‘End Turn’ button with great trepidation.
Consequently, diplomacy plays a larger role. Making enemies is inevitable, but making too many in Shogun 2 can be disastrous. Keeping certain clans on your side rewards you with more than just increased trade and income. It’ll also give you honour. Pay respect to your allies and assist them with their enemies and they’ll reward you in kind. Break off relations and start wars without first declaring them and don’t be surprised if clans, as well as your own people, take up arms against you for such a dishonest display.
Good relations become a necessity then, something you need to be good at in order to survive, but that doesn’t rule out the potential to be a little underhanded. Agents still play a key role, now boasting an RPG-style levelling system that makes them more useful than in previous TW entries. Initial knee-jerk reactions to the announcement of Role Playing aspects creeping their way into another strategy game have fortunately proven unfounded. What CA have done is allow every agent and general the ability to level up. Each level gained gives you the opportunity to assign points to specific traits, perhaps boosting one generals movement speed or replenishment bonuses for instance.
Nowhere is this such an obvious boon than with Ninjas. Of all of the agents you’ll employ, none are as useful as these quick footed, bloodthirsty assassins. While initially they’ll struggle to drop even the weakest of targets, through the correct spending of talent points they can become unstoppable killing machines, carving their way through an enemy clan’s armies with ease. The longer you use them. the better they are at their job.
You grow attached to the best agents and generals as their skills increase, and become ever more protective as you send them out on their dangerous missions, never quite knowing whether they’ll come back in one piece. That added human quality connects you to the units you command to far greater effect, preventing instances of needless sacrifices and forcing you to think ahead before committing to actions that could very well end up failing.
The campaign map still proves to be the most compelling aspect of Shogun 2, but it’s still only half the game. As ever, it’s the vast real time battles that continue to define the series, benefiting here from technical accomplishments that render such large scale skirmishes with a detail few others have, or will ever match. Even up close, the sheer breadth of variety in the different armours of the units or the weapons they wield is staggering. This is also the first Total War game where troops are fully animated, swooping their swords down and striking their foes with far greater accuracy than in past releases where soldiers just piled into one another, arms flailing, by the hundreds. Now there’s actually some semblance of grace in the chaotic carnage.
Take long enough to put aside the jaw dropping beauty of some of the vistas you fight across, and you’ll find that the improvements of the campaign maps’ AI have also rubbed off on the battlefield. It’s refreshing to see that simply recycling strategies from previous TW games are no longer the safe bet they once where. Now, the enemy flanks with more confidence, positioning his best troops to push into your least defended lines, sending forth the correct troop types to deal with cavalry and pouncing on an exposed portion of your formations to punch a hole through. They’re even quick to take advantage of an unprotected general. Leave him out in the open without adequate back up and the enemy will quickly take advantage of your foible by rushing him, a lesson I very nearly paid dearly for.
Sheer numbers alone are no longer a guarantee for success. Battles can evolve rapidly and the fortunes of those fighting can switch thanks to one tiny mistake. Even winning incurs massive losses, and few battles that I’ve fought during my own reign as warlord have left me with the huge numbers I’ve gone into battle with. Shogun 2 really makes you earn those victories, even defeats can be an exhilarating (if sombre) experience, the kind that make you want to share war stories with the next person you meet.
Sieges also make a welcome return after the disappointing fort battles of Empire. Still lacking in any real siege weaponry, these have also improved thanks to a move to focus on courtyard fighting as opposed to defending and destroying walls. Multiple capture points of defensible arrow towers and gates allow for a more tactical approach to attacking a settlement than simply swarming the central position until everything is dead. When defending you now also have the added burden of being attacked from every direction, requiring more forward planning than simply stacking everyone against a certain wall and waiting for the inevitable onslaught.
One area the combat still lags behind is with naval warfare. Empire overburdened you with micromanagement of individual ships strained by weather and the amount of guns they carried; the larger the battles the less enjoyable they became. Shogun 2 at least tones down the need for a navy by limiting vital trade routes and keeping combat close to coastal regions. With many ships bereft of gun-powdered weaponry and moved by rowing rather than sails, fighting becomes quicker and more personal. Yet it can still descend into a confusing mess on larger engagements, with ships piling into one another and scattering. It works better than Empire, but still remains something that many may seek to avoid via the ‘Auto Resolve’ function.
While the AI may be improved, it’s nothing compared with that of a shared human opponent. Multuiplayer has always been one of those things that has felt secondary in Total War game. Shogun 2 however changes that. The drop-in battles from Napoleon: Total War again make a return, offering you the chance to go head to head with another player if fighting the AI just doesn’t cut it. But by far the biggest addition is the new conquest mode.
A 1 versus 1 game, the objective is the same as the single player, only here you have to take a customised avatar and fight across Japan in order to secure new troop types in order to further expand, levelling up your persistent character along the way and picking up new skills and item drops with each success. The problem, however, is that every battle is shared with another player, also on the same goal and also as determined to win. It’s a surprise to see just how much has been crammed into this mode, it almost feels like an entirely new game and finally gives Total War fans who’ve been craving a more substantial multiplayer mode something to gnaw on long after the single player campaign has been won.
It’s a far cry from what Creative Assembly provided ten years ago, in those early days of the Total War name. Where now you’d expect a developer to slow down and loose interest in a series as popular and long lasting as this, it’s that care and love for improving on a well worn formula that marks each release of these games with excitement. A decade on, and Shogun 2 proves that Creative Assembly have little interest to watch their beloved series fade out. If this is what we can expect from future releases of Total War games, it’ll be interesting to see what the next ten years bring.
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